Tokyo-based luthier who replicates storied violins is one of a kind

by

Special To The Japan Times

Throughout the history of classical music there have been composers who, in moments of inspiration, created masterpieces that have stayed with us for centuries. Just as important are those musicians who, through their own virtuosity, re-create those masterpieces — a talent that was particularly appreciated before the advent of recording technology.

This desire to re-create also applies to the instruments used in performing such great works. Around 300 years ago, for example, the finest violins were made in the northern Italian city of Cremona by luthiers such as Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) and Giuseppe Guarneri (1698-1744). Their efforts resulted in objects that have fascinated musicians and collectors alike over the years, sometimes fetching hundreds of million yen a piece. And these objects are being reproduced in modern-day Tokyo.

“When I was younger, I wanted to create my own original violin, but before long, I realized how difficult it is,” says Tokyo-based German violin maker Andreas Preuss. Walking around his studio in the capital’s Ikebukuro area, though, it’s apparent that he eventually got the hang of it.

The 51-year-old luthier recently produced a replica of a violin that Guarneri created in 1733 and that was regularly used by the Austrian-born composer Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962), considered by many to be one of the greatest violinists of all time.

The Guarneri replica is part of a series Preuss is working on comprising replicas of instruments that were used by prominent violinists. His first piece was a re-creation of Guarneri’s famed Il Cannone violin, which was used by Italian virtuoso Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840). His next piece will be a replica of a Guarneri-made violin used by Belgian composer — and “King of the Violin” — Eugene Ysaye (1858-1931).

Growing up in Juelich, Germany, Preuss says his interest in violins was sparked by a luthier studio in his hometown. At 16 he decided to take up the trade and began looking for schools in renowned violin centers such as Mittenwald, Germany, and Cremona. However, after much research it was recommended he come to Tokyo to study under Zoroku Murata, who himself had studied in Germany and was the first Japanese there to earn the rank of meister.

“I couldn’t speak any Japanese at all when I came to Japan at age 19,” Preuss recalls in fluent Japanese. He says it was the first time in life he truly mastered a challenge. “I am convinced that it helped me psychologically, now I will take on challenges that look intimidating.”

Preuss has the distinction of being the only Westerner to graduate from Murata’s school. He received his meister qualification in Germany and trained further in Hungary, France and the United States. In New York he spent eight years working as a luthier at a studio frequented by artists such as violinist Pinchas Zukerman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

“I often got the chance to observe and touch genuine Stradivarius and del Gesu,” Preuss says referring to the instruments created by Stradivari and Guarneri. “Without those experiences in New York, I’d never be able to produce replicas of such first-class instruments.”

In 2006, Preuss returned to Tokyo and opened his own studio. There he provides maintenance and restoration services, as well as acting as a consultant and an authenticator of rare instruments.

Initially he made replicas of old Italian violins as a way to teach the manufacturing process to his pupils, but his efforts heightened his curiosity and led to a desire to know more about the scientific approaches to violin-making techniques and the historical backgrounds of specific instruments.

According to Preuss, the visual appearance of 18th-century instruments from Cremona is such that an expert can tell the maker by looking at one particular detail. He thinks this is due to the tools the masters used back then.

“In some cases it’s necessary to imagine and reinvent the tools that were used in order to prove whether or not that is what creates the features the experts can recognize,” Preuss says.

However, the luthier does not believe a replica needs to be the exact copy of an original instrument.

“Some of my peers insist on precision to the point that it is measured right down to the millimeter by computer-controlled machines,” he says. “It’s the material that decides the exact length, thickness and proper swell of each instrument. We need to ‘ask the wood’ first, as I believe the old masters did.”

Citing techniques based on the alchemy of the Middle Ages, Preuss says that instead of focusing on the actual object his approach is to replicate the intention of its original creator. This approach was vindicated when Preuss won one of the top prizes in the International Violin Makers Competition in Moscow in 2014.

While mastering the re-creation of an instrument that has its own legend behind it is an incredible feat, does Preuss ever feel like he is merely working in the shadows of the greats?

“If you want to make an instrument that’s better than a Stradivarius or a del Gesu,” he says, “first you have to prove that you can make the old instrument exactly as it is.”

Preuss Fine Violins Co. Ltd. is located at 2-12-1-307 Minami-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo. For more information, call 03-6231-0959 or visit www.preuss.jp.